Continuing with Candle’s Christmas Chair. I have one more chapter to read into the recorder, then I’ll do the paper proofread while listening to the playback. I hope that’ll help me pick up all the proofing errors. I plan to put it up to the distributor on Wednesday, so it is ready for you to download by the middle of the weekend, wherever in the world you happen to be.
Chapter seven: A proposal and a proposition
Whatever Mother said to Min, she was quiet and thoughtful for the rest of the walk home. Both mothers went for a rest as soon as they’d eaten a nuncheon.
“Would you like to see the succession houses?” Candle asked Min.
He took her the long way around, through the gardens she’d not yet had a chance to see because of the rain. As he’d hoped, they were deserted. All the gardeners were with their families enjoying a Sunday rest.
Avery Hall had three succession houses, One was given over to grape vines that snaked along the walls and looped overhead, and strawberries in pots. One was growing late autumn and early spring vegetables. And in the last one, they saw the first person they’d seen since they left the house. Mugridge, the head gardener, was checking the fire that was used to keep the succession house warm.
He nodded to Candle, and smiled warmly at Min, giving her a somewhat deeper bow. The servants, who adored Mother, had taken Min to their hearts—at first for what her chairs meant to Mother, but then because she was sweet, unassuming, and genuinely interested in them.
“I be just checking this fire, my Lord, Miss. Won’t be long.”
Candle showed Min along the lines of seedlings—trees, shrubs, and flowers being propogated to fill the garden in spring. True to his word, Mugridge very soon said, “I be off now, then. No-one be coming this way till night time, now, my Lord. Close up when tha leaves, will ‘ee?”
Candle promised, and turned back to Min. She looked both apprehensive and amused, with amusement winning.
“He thinks we want to be alone,” Candle explained.
“I gathered that,” she replied.
“Come. Take the chair near the stove.”
It was somewhat battered, but sturdy. She sat in it and he settled himself at her feet.
It was an odd setting for a proposal, but safe. Any place he could be sure of being alone with Min in the house was a place he’d already imagined making love to her in. He wasn’t confident that he could control himself if she accepted his proposal. Or even that he would get to the proposal before…
He had to stop that train of thought. The succession house was becoming less safe by the minute. He was already thinking of the logistics of lovemaking here in the dirt among the seedlings. His coat spread to protect her dress… No. Not here. Quite apart from the respect he owed to an innocent and his future viscountess, he had no intention of consumating his desire in front of a hundred glass panes.
“Min, you know what I want to ask you.”
“I think I do.”
“Will you, Min? Will you make me the happiest of men? Will you marry me?”
“Ran, I am not from your world.”
“I know you are too good for me,” he joked, “but I’m hoping you’re prepared to make the sacrifice.”
“Ran, I am serious. I am the daughter of a carriage maker. You are a peer. Society…”
“Min, I love you. If you love me, then Society can go hang itself.”
“I want to continue making chairs.”
“I hope you will.”
“Really? You would not mind?”
“Min, you have a gift. I want you to use it. Say you will marry me, and I’ll have the bans read. We can be wed before Christmas.”
She withdrew. She didn’t move a muscle, but he felt her pulling into herself, away from him.
His full name. That couldn’t be good. But he wasn’t Lord Avery again, which was a hopeful sign.
“Is that a no, Min?”
She shook her head.
“Is it a yes?”
Another head shake.
“Min?” He came up onto his knees in a single motion, and captured her face between both of his hands, looking into her grey eyes.
She collected herself then, his brave little goddess. “When I come back with the chair, I will give you your answer.”
And then she pressed her sweet lips to his and he was lost. With a groan he enfolded her in his arms, slid his hands up behind her head, and deepened the kiss.
It could have been a minute; it could have been months. Time ceased to exist as he explored her mouth and she followed his lead. Her tentative movements, bold and shy at the same time, intoxicated him and he was conscious of nothing but the burning need to sink into her softness. Until a piece of gravel on the path turned as he shifted his knee, and dug into his skin.
He drew away from her with a groan.
Had he done that? Her lips were swollen and red, a sleeve was pulled down baring her shoulder, and one glorious breast was nearly tipped out of her dress. Another nudge, and he’d see…
He blinked, and shook the idea out of his head. “Min, my own dearest love.” He had to be calm. She looked as dazed as he felt. Probably more so, given her innocence. If his world was shaken, hers must be reeling.
“I would help you put yourself to rights, beloved. But I don’t dare touch you.”
She straightened her dress, repinned the lace cap she wore in her hair, rewrapped her shawl around her, all the while sneaking peeks at him and colouring each time their eyes met.
Before they left the succession house, he put a finger on her now clothed arm.
“Min, will you accept my apology, beloved? I meant no disrespect, I promise you. I should never have kissed you. I know how powerfully I react when we touch.”
To his surprise, she suddenly grinned at him. “Ah but Ran, you forget. I kissed you first.”
Daniel must have left Bath before dawn. He was at the door by mid-morning, and wouldn’t accept Ran’s invitation to stop for lunch. Rain was coming, he said, and he wanted to be safely back in Bath before the deluge.
Min, her valise packed with all the notes and drawings she needed to finish the chair, kissed Lady Avery on the cheek, and gave Ran her hand. He lifted it and deliberately placed a kiss in the palm.
“Bring it back to me, Min,” he said.
She almost told him, then and there, that she would marry him, but—no. She had to get back to Bath. She would make her decision without his disturbing presence tugging her to fall into his arms.
Neither Daniel nor Mama commented on the kiss. Mama asked after Papa, and then she and Daniel discussed the dispatches about the Navy’s victory. They were calling it the Battle of Trafalgar, and nearly 450 British sailors had died. Almost ten times as many died on the other side.
Min didn’t contribute. Mostly, she didn’t listen. She sat and thought about chair design, and what she needed to do to finish Candle’s chair for his mother in time for Christmas.
And all the while her thoughts kept going back to Candle’s kiss, and to the answer she would need to give him.
Min strode across the yard, her pattens sending sprays of water flying from puddles she ignored in her indignation. Daniel was in the outer office. She didn’t trust herself to speak in front of the clerk; she jerked her head towards the inner office, and went through to wait for him.
He was quick to join her, his face wary. “Now, Minnie, what has got your back up?”
“Did you tell…” She caught herself. Took a deep breath. Best to check the facts first.
“Richards has ignored the instructions I left, redrawn my designs, and reworked the chairs for the Barfoot sale. He claims he had your authorisation.”
Her cousin’s eyes gave him away, sliding evasively to one side. “Now, Minnie. Richards is a good foreman.”
“You gave him authorisation to change my work,” she said flatly.
“He’s highly experienced, Minnie. He said a few changes would save materials and increase our profit.”
“A few changes that mean we do not meet the client’s specifications and will not make the sale.”
“You are exaggerating. He showed me his drawings. Sound carriage design.”
“Unsound chair design,” she snapped back.
Papa entered the room, saw the two of them, and closed the door behind him.
“What’s going on?”
“I want Richards out of my workshop,” Min told Papa, not taking her eyes off Daniel.
“She is upset about a few economies that I approved.” Daniel put on his ‘I am reasonable and you are a female’ voice. “Look, Minnie, you have to let go and let us take over. After all, you will leave all this behind you when you marry your Viscount.”
“Point one,” Min thought she did well to keep her voice calm and level, “I have not accepted Lord Avery’s proposal. Point two, if I do accept, he has promised that I can continue making chairs. Point three, the chair workshop is mine, and you had no right to allow Richards to disobey a direct instruction.”
“Well, Minerva. Strictly speaking he is general manager of the whole works,” Papa said. The traitor.
She looked at the two of them in silence for a moment. First things first. She needed to deal with the chair disaster.
“Let me explain the problem, gentlemen. Richards has scaled down standard carriage parts.” Blank looks. “Scaled them precisely. Without any consideration of the structural integrity of the new thicknesses.”
The two men exchanged glances again. Consternation had replaced smug commiseration. Just so, she thought with a grim satisfaction.
“All three chairs will need to be remade if we are not to forego 90 guineas and the chance of future orders. And I am fully committed on Lady Avery’s chair.” Fortunately, Richards had left that chair alone. She had made every inch of it herself, investing hours. She didn’t just want efficient engineering; she wanted a superb piece of furniture. Carved, turned, and polished woodwork for the handle; upholstery in the finest leather with a buttoned back and seat, sewn detail, and cording on the edges.
“I’ll see to it, Minnie.” Daniel sounded humble, but she couldn’t expect that to last. She was so used to his persistent belief in his male superiority that she noticed it only because of the contrast with Ran’s respect.
“Very well then. And Richards goes.”
“I’ll reassign him.”
“Thank you.” She could be gracious in victory.
She left her menfolk in the office they shared. She wanted to cut the leather for the arms and leave it to relax, and add another coat of polish to the handle. It could be drying while she went out to tea with Cara and her friends. She was cautiously venturing into Society, and finding it less threatening than she expected.
Bother. She had forgotten to tell her father that she wouldn’t be walking home with him.
Turning back through the outer office, she started to push the inner door open, and paused.
“Do you think Lord Avery means to let Minnie make her chairs?” That was Daniel.
“Don’t be daft. Whoever heard of a viscountess doing that sort of stuff? No he’s just saying it. Or he means it now, but will come to his senses soon enough.” That was Papa.
“Yes. You should have put a stop to it long ago, Uncle.”
“It made her happy. And she’s done some good work, you can’t deny it.”
“It isn’t right, though. A woman shouldn’t be doing carriage work, Uncle. I’m sorry to hear that Lord Avery is encouraging her.”
“You know what they say, lad: ‘When a man grows hard between the thighs, he grows soft between the ears.’ He’s soft on my girl, right enough.”
Min had heard enough. Her ears burning, she retreated to her workshop.
Were they right? Ran had sounded so convincing when he spoke of his hope that she would continue her work. But she had always known that marriage would make her dependent on the goodwill of a husband, and she had seen that the face a man showed before marriage was not always the one his wife saw after.
Could Ran be trusted?